The moral shabbiness of King James I of Scotland
Sometimes new discoveries can be made in documents which have been in the collection for some time. msDA783.6J1M7 (ms666) was bequeathed to the University of St Andrews in 1945 and has remained in the Library’s Special Collections ever since. It was described in the original catalogue as a transfer of a mortgage by King James V dating to 1541. However, last summer, the combined efforts of Rachel Hart, Margaret Connolly and visiting scholar, William Hepburn, identified this as a mistake. The hand and the witnesses demonstrated that what had been dated as the twenty-fourth year of the reign of James V (1541) was really that of James I (1429).
The document was revealed to be one of a small number of surviving letters under his privy seal issued by King James I of Scotland during his personal rule between 1424 and 1437. The impression of the seal is still attached. Rather than showing the king enthroned on one side and as an armoured knight on the other as on the great seal, the privy seal simply bears the royal arms. As this suggests, the privy seal was used for less formal business than that under the great seal; royal orders and licences, as well as some grants of land or money. The form of the document, with the seal applied to a tongue cut into the foot of the parchment, with a residual tie present, is normal practice for a privy seal document, as opposed to the separate tag with pendant seal of more formal grants.
The document is relatively unusual for a letter under the privy seal in having a list of named witnesses. Those present included the royal chancellor, John Cameron bishop of Glasgow, and William Fowlis, who held the privy seal. Both were regular witnesses on James’s charters as was Thomas Myrton. The presence of George bishop of Argyll, whose family, the Lauders, were an influential ecclesiastical dynasty in the 1420s, and William Sinclair earl of Orkney is more striking. Sinclair, a widely-connected and culturally-aware nobleman, remained close to James I throughout the reign but did not regularly witness royal acts.
Superficially, the contents of this letter look routine. On 13th September 1429 King James assigned to John Saint-Michael all his property and rights in the lands of Mosshouses near Penicuik south of Edinburgh. These lands had been mortgaged to the king for £100 by their legal owner, Henry Douglas of Lugton. When this sum was repaid to Saint-Michael, Douglas could recover his property.
Henry Douglas held the baronies of Lugton near Dalkeith and Lochleven near Kinross. In 1392 he had received Mosshouses from his father who had purchased the estate from the lord of Melville. What gives the letter a different character as more than a straightforward act of royal patronage is the fact that, when it was granted, Henry Douglas was in England. He was acting as one of the hostages delivered as sureties for the payment of James I’s ransom. The king seems to have been passing on the mortgaged estate of a man who was in the custody of a foreign ruler in his place. The initial transaction may itself have been a product of the financial costs imposed on Douglas by his detention. In this light, the letter is suggestive of the kind of moral shabbiness which characterises other financial actions of James I. The king’s decision to cease paying his ransom would abandon several hostages to a future in English captivity. Though Henry Douglas did return to Scotland in 1432 his experience, like that of other hostages and their families, may have shaped his attitude to the king. This letter may provide one further indication that, as the chronicler Walter Bower hinted, James’s championing of royal justice was mirrored by his desire to acquire other men’s possessions.
Professor Michael Brown
School of History